The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
It doesn’t get any more New Wave SF than this very slim 1968 Nebula-winning novel (157 pages), and it’s hard to imagine anything like this being written today. The Einstein Intersection is a mythical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in a far-future Earth populated by the mutated remnants of humanity. Being a Samuel R. Delany book, the writing is disjointed, jazzy, lyrical, playful, and tantalizing. The surface events are fairly obscure, but it’s clear that the real narrative is buried beneath, and in case you didn’t catch on, every chapter has several obscure (and fairly pretentious) quotes from intellectuals, not least of all the author himself, who inserts between chapters snippets of his journals from his artistic travels in the Mediterranean while writing this book, in classic meta-fiction style. Even in a longer book I’d view this literary device as fairly self-indulgent, but when the entire story is 157 pages, it’s seems downright insulting to the reader. It’s very clear that reader expectations and tastes have changed dramatically in the last half century.
The plot, to be charitable, involves Lo-Lobey, a humanoid mutant in the far future who sounds more like a Neanderthal with great brute strength but limited brain capacity. He is a musician who plays his sword like a flute, and when his love Friza disappears one day, he sets out on a quest to find her. His nemesis is a fearful super-being called Kid Death, a mutant with the power to kill seemingly at will who is intent on wiping out other mutants (which makes you wonder why he doesn’t dispatch them all with a flick of the wrist).
One of the key themes of the book is the mythical overtones of Lo-Lobey’s Orpheus-like quest into the underworld, and by far the most amazing and intense part of the book is the extended sequence in which Lo-Lobey hunts down a massive minotaur underground and battles him. The writing is fantastic and if the book had been able to sustain more passages like this, I would have liked the novel much more. As it is, I felt that was the high point and the narrative collapsed afterward.
The other key theme is mutation as a metaphor for being “different,” and when we consider that Delany himself was a gay black poet growing up in Harlem, that makes sense. He married high-school classmate poet Marilyn Hacker after high school, but they experimented with polygamy and had affairs with both men and women, and Marilyn later declared herself lesbian after their divorce. So it’s fair to say Delany would consider himself different. The underlying theme of the story also strongly identifies with the mutants, and at the end of the story Lo-Lobey realizes that instead of imitating the traditions of the extinct human race, the aliens (for that is what they are) need to embrace their differences and live on their own terms. This may make sense thematically, but to shoehorn such a complex idea into the fragile vessel of this story is really over-reaching in my opinion.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, since it wouldn’t even get a consideration now and might only count as a novella. I wish I could have been in on the award committee deliberations. There must have been an old-guard group supporting Golden Age writers, and a much younger, hipper, coffee-house social activist group on the other side, locked in a deadly struggle for supremacy. Tracking the Hugo and Nebula winners through past decades is a fascinating barometer of the changing times and SF readership, something that an MA thesis could be devoted to.
According to Delaney himself, the old-guard vs New-Wave-Hipster award battle went exactly as you imagined it.
A lot of Delaney’s male protagonists are tall, strapping hunks. I think there was a little bit of fantasy wish fulfillment going on there.
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